I’m dreading writing this post. It’s going to take a long time, more time than I have. And I’d rather sleep on the plane than write this. But I’m reminding myself that collecting my notes and thoughts is the best way for me to reflect on what I’ve heard and what I’m challenged to do and be as a humanitarian. As if I could write it all, remember it all, blog it all… these are just a few of the many things I’ve learned from !ideation. PS: Apologies for the extra lengthy post, but I think you’ll find it’s worth reading.
It might take time. I was sitting in the audience listening to Rob Morris talk about why he chose the name Love146 for his organization. He spoke about a little girl that he met in a country where child exploitation is as typical as red light cameras here in the states. He talked with compassion as he related the story to his own, as a father of a little girl and the unimaginable thoughts that came with it as he witnessed a real-life scene of child exploitation.
It’s always perplexed me the way parents talk about issues of child trafficking and exploitation. You can tell it’s an issue that pricks the heart. But I’m not a mom. I’m an aunt, and a cousin to young children, and sometimes I’ll babysit the neighbor’s baby (well, I actually haven’t done that since I was 17). And I care about child trafficking. How could I not care? But I also can’t help but wonder if I’ll feel differently, more compelled to the cause, about this issue when I’m a parent.
They say that you never quite understand the Father’s love until you’re a father (or a mother) yourself. That’s a reality I can accept, that I may never fully grasp the horror of the child exploitation issue without children of my own. But the sheer number — 2 million trafficked children a year — that’s not a reality any of us should accept, parents or not.
It is no longer encouraged that we educate ourselves. It is absolutely necessary. I’ve never tried to understand rocket science. I leave that to the kid in my old science class that I begged to be my lab partner for risk of failing the course. The truth is, I don’t care that much about rocket science. I don’t want to know about it. That’s for someone else to know.
But when it comes to humanitarian work these days, we are a bunch of kids in a classroom trying to skip the course work. But humanitarian work is like rocket science. It’s hard, and complex and there are things you have to know. It’s not enough to be a bright person, or even a cool person, with a good idea and some great intentions.
I wrote a post recently about the essential characteristics of a social media community manager. One of those essentials was a “life-long learner.” But that’s not just a necessary characteristic of a social media worker, that’s an absolute requirement for humanitarians. We must be committed to learning, and learning some more. If we don’t, then we risk mixing the wrong chemicals creating an explosion instead of a movement.
It’s a dangerous business. As I sat in Mike Foster’s session in the afternoon of Day 1, I came back to my earlier thought about how important it is that as humanitarians, we educate ourselves on the subject of humanity. I sat with Ashley, Amanda, Karen and Mike as we chatted about what it means to take risks, not the careless kind, but the kind that result in opportunity and innovation. For Mike, his risk was obvious… the guy passed out bibles to people who get paid to have sex on tape at a major porn show. But what’s my risk? What’s our risk?
And that thought lead to this: I thought about what it means to be in the “business” of vocational ministry – an industry with a “business goal” of saving lives. A “business” that is, quite frankly, extremely dangerous territory. You’re dealing with people’s souls. But the same is true for humanitarian work. We’re dealing with people’s perceptions on how they think and care (or don’t care) for the world’s poor, the hurting, the suffering, the exploited and the exploiter. Our risk is in the message, it’s in the work.
So like how one babbling preacher turns away a flock of desperate souls for Christ, so, too, when one misinformed, uneducated humanitarian tweaks the message or the work, it can misinform people’s understanding of how best to help. And the last thing humanity needs are misinformed folks in the way of real help.
What’s the price of changing lives? What’s the price of a lost soul? Of the prodigal son? Of the effort it takes to bring the prodigal son home? These are real questions we ask ourselves, as humanitarians. Because humanitarians care about the souls (or at least the well-being of souls) of the world’s people. Is the price sacrifice? (I recently read a post about the sacrifice of aid work) Is the price a dollar amount? Is it a call-to-action? Is it a tax write-off?
As I selectively listened, as I tend to do, as speakers took the stage… something Chris Heuertz said caught my attention. He talked about the price of a sex slave – maybe $35 a night in some countries, and about how organizations also use a price point like $35 to convey the price of freedom for that slave. But then he said, “You can’t put a price on freedom either. When you do that, you still make her a commodity. It doesn’t take $35. It takes 35 years.”
I hope that feels like a slap in the face to you, too.
And that last thought brings me to this one — Is someone else’s issue paying your salary? It is for me. And I bet it is for you. Joel talked about the failing enterprise of homeless services in America. And he said this – we’re failing because we’ve institutionalized homelessness. And I thought to myself — have we institutionalized poverty?
In a really upside down and backwards way, I found myself thinking – oh my gosh, it’s not the poor that count on us. We count on them.
And then I came back to earth and realized how absurd that sort of thinking is. And also, how entirely true it is. And since that thought originally hit me, I’ve considered every possible way to combat this ridiculously, sucky truth.
But you can never run from what’s true. So this is me facing the truth. And realizing that if someone else’s issues are going to pay my salary, then I better damn well do the best job I can possibly do, and with every ounce of appreciation in my body and always, always on my lips.
And a few more short thoughts….
“When the broken ask you to dance, you dance.” –Rob Morris When Rob said this, I thought… dancing, no problem. I love to dance. A good wedding, a bad wedding, a birthday party, karaoke night… while cooking dinner, it doesn’t matter. I love to dance. So when Rob said this… I think what he meant for people like me is — when the broken cry, you cry. When they laugh, you laugh. When they hide in the corner, you find them. When they’re stuck in the dark, you walk hand-in-hand seeking light. When they need a neighbor, you become their friend (Actually, Chris Heuertz said that part). And when they need you, you come running as fast as you can.
And pair that last quote with this one: “If my life were at stake, I hope someone else treats it like a dire emergency.” –Ben Keesey. It’s easy to become complacent, even apathetic, toward humanitarian work. Statistics become like burned out light bulbs and the faces of hungry children become another face in the (rain) clouds. But be reminded that real people and real children are dying, and suffering and enduring more hardship than we could ever explain or imagine or probably live through in a lifetime. Now, let that let you rest on your laurels.
Do we TELL stories? Or do we CHANGE stories? Esther has one of those jobs that I dream about… traveling all over the world, taking photographs, telling stories with pictures (of course I know it’s much more than just fun and photos). But as she showed photograph after photograph, I thought this (and I think I tweeted it, too) – are we story-tellers? Or story changers?
Story-tellers lose, and run into dead ends and walls in their aspiration to help other people. Story changers, well, maybe they’ll make a difference, an impact — the kind of impact Keith Kall talked about (see Notes from !ideation). The kind of impact that changes the story.
The line is forever blurred. It used to be safe to call ourselves marketers, or communicators, or photographers. Or humanitarians. But if social media and social entrepreneurial-ism and Tales From the Hood have taught me anything… it’s that the lines that used to separate these things don’t exist anymore. In fact, it’s impossible for them to exist.
So you marketers out there, you better learn how to communicate. And you photographers, you better learn how to tell and change stories. And you humanitarians, you better be able to do it all.
If you want to skim my actual notes, find them in my last post.